The Great Suburban Frontier

How the American Dream rose from the dead, and how it died again

America has always had a unique history. While it was formed as a European colony with European settlers, its development was always distinctly non-European. The old world was weighed down with millennia of history and constantly short on space, but the new world seemed to be opposite: completely new and endlessly expansive. These differences were developed even further in the American Revolution, introducing the ideas of republicanism and equality to an already extraordinary society.

The ideal of a independent yeoman farmer, as depicted in the 1870s

What this actually looked like on the ground, at least theoretically, was known as Jeffersonian democracy. Under this system, everyone owned a certain amount of land, they were able to work it themselves, and a democratic system of universal (white, male) suffrage and limited central government would make sure that power never became too concentrated. America would be a republic of virtuous, self-sufficient men, all of equal stature. It was from this ideal that the American Dream was born.

Of course, it never was really accurate. Southern politicians, including Jefferson himself, used the principle of limited central government to preserve the unequal system of slavery in their own states. And the open land that many European Americans thrived on was not open at all, but violently conquered from Native Americans who had lived there for thousands of years. That is all without getting into the subjugation of women that was the norm at the time.

But there was another flaw in the system, one that wouldn’t become clear until decades after Jefferson’s death. If everyone had their own plot of land to serve as the foundation for their independence then, as the population grew, there must always be more land to give away. There must always be a frontier. Sure, you could choose to stay in the increasingly crowded cities of the east cost and live under the European condition, but there must always be the opportunity to stake out your own claim. There’s a reason why Americans have always had a love affair with explorers and cowboys. While their population centers remained in the east, their hearts were always in the west.

John Gast, American Progress, 1872

In 1890, the US government declared that the frontier was closed. Suddenly, this condition which America’s democracy was based on was no longer valid. There may have still been plenty of open space, and the government tried its best to use legislation like the Homestead Acts to expand the opportunity for land ownership, but the effect of closure was undeniable. If you were living under a system that was keeping you down, there was nowhere left to run. You actually had to face the problems at home.

Now, there were people who were doing that already. The labor and agrarian movements had existed for decades, attempting to fight against the inequality that was getting worse as the economy in the east and midwest developed. Various third parties formed by these groups had gone in and out of popularity, winning the occasional house seat or governorship. But none of these movements had ever achieved real political prominence.

Then, in the 1892 presidential election, the Populist party won five states, formed from a coalition of these two groups. This was more than any third party since the Civil War. They did especially well in areas without existing political machines, but their party structure was weak and it collapsed quickly. Despite its failure, it still served as a warning shot for the upcoming Progressive Era. Throughout the 1890s and into the 1910s, reformist and revolutionary groups took control of US politics, laying the groundwork that would eventually lead to the New Deal.

History is cyclical. Even after it was technically closed, the idea of an American frontier never really went away. It just had to be re-invented.

Ironically, it was the New Deal that ended up accomplishing this. While people may think of things like Social Security and public works as the keystones of that era, perhaps the most consequential, long-term effect of the New Deal was the creation of the Federal Housing Administration. Homeownership dropped sharply during the Great Depression, and the FHA’s goal was to push it back up by providing subsidized, reliable mortgages to those who wanted them. But it did a lot more than return homeownership to normal levels. After World War II, hundreds of thousands of veterans returned home and were greeted with subsidized educations and subsidized housing.

An ad for Levittown, one of the most famous post-war suburbs

This created a set of opportunities that had not existed in a while. Instead of being forced to go back to the crowded cities or dying farms, young people could move into the rapidly expanding suburbs. With a cheap mortgage, they could get a plot of land that they owned, providing a source of financial stability and independence. Home ownership rose, inequality fell, and the American Dream was once again within reach. The frontier, or at least the way of life it represented, was back. It’s no wonder that cowboy movies became so popular in the 1950s.

Once again, this boom of opportunity came at a cost to an ignored minority. African Americans, barred from getting FHA-approved loans, were locked into cities, which began to crumble as most well-off people began to leave for the suburbs.

President and cowboy actor, Ronald Reagan

Now that the first half of Jeffersonian democracy, self-sufficiency and wide-spread landownership, was back, it was only a matter of time until the second part, limited central government, followed in its steps. It did take some time. Most of the people who were taking advantage of the new suburban frontier had come of age during the Great Depression, and remained relatively liberal throughout their whole lives. However, their children, who had grown up comfortably in suburban homes watching cowboy movies, ended up electing one of those cowboys president in 1980.

A conservative, limited government focused on lowering taxes and cutting spending might have made more sense back in the era of the true frontier. But while the new suburban America may have created material conditions similar to Jeffersonian democracy, there were plenty of fundamental differences.

During the 1800s, opportunity was tied to the availability of land. While the frontier was open, there was always more land, and the only thing the government had to do was give permission to settle it. Since WWII, opportunity has largely been tied to the availability of cheap housing and cheap education. Those are things that you can’t just find in nature. And this was quietly acknowledged. The FHA stayed funded, the federal government subsidized student loans, and most programs for middle-class homeowners stayed intact. But these weren’t things that were created by the government, either. They were just subsidized. The real control lay in the market, which cared less about providing services and more about making profit.

Homeownership in the US, though it has since bounced back slightly

In 2008, the frontier closed once again. This time, instead of running out of space, Americans ran out of credit. The mortgage crisis exposed that a good deal of the prosperity that people had enjoyed for the last several decades was false. In reality, wages were stagnating, debt was increasing, and people were becoming less secure. Even many suburbs, which had been supposed bastions of ownership, have started to become places where people rent out of financial necessity. There are plenty of people that still own homes, but the idea that we can all exist on our own, separate plots, completely independent, is gone.

It’s no wonder, then, that progressivism has begun to rise again, as it did in the 1890s. It would be difficult to look at our current situation objectively and think that everything is just going fine. Jeffersonian democracy is dead, and it is time to start looking for a replacement.

Just as we can look back in American history to find analogies to our current problems, we can look back in American history to find analogies to our potential solutions. The man who offered perhaps the most comprehensive vision of an alternative at the time of Jefferson was Thomas Paine. One would think that they were quite similar; they both were famous for their pro-democracy stances and utopian rhetorical styles. But they had very different backgrounds, and those backgrounds led to different outlooks.

Thomas Paine

While Jefferson had always lived amongst the upper classes in Virginia, Paine was a bit more worldly. He spent a good deal of time in cities and areas in Europe that had never had the opportunity to develop the Jeffersonian ideal, getting swept up in the Industrial Revolution instead. As a result, he was more prepared to deal with the realities of what happens when industrialization happens before equal landownership.

After experiencing both the American and French revolutions, many of Paine’s economic ideas were put forth in his pamphlet Agrarian Justice. The main goal of the pamphlet was to introduce an inheritance tax and use that to fund an old-age pension and a one-time payment to every individual upon reaching the age of 21.

However, the philosophy behind the pamphlet opens up room for a wider array of solutions than what he explicitly wrote. He identified poverty as being created by civilization, and believed that it was therefore civilization’s job to solve it. And the reason that poverty was so prevalent despite the increased wealth that came from civilization? He had two answers. The first, people were being separated from their right to natural property:

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue.

The second, which is mentioned near the end, and not frequently talked about when people discuss Paine, is theft of labor:

This is putting the matter on a general principle, and perhaps it is best to do so; for if we examine the case minutely it will be found that the accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.

The reason he doesn’t include a solution for this injustice in his plan is because he believes it is “impossible to proportion exactly the price of labor to the profits it produces”. So instead, he simply hopes that the one-time payment and old-age pension will be enough to alleviate the effects of this problem.

Since then, there have been plenty of people that have taken these ideas and expanded on them. Henry George took the idea of ground-rent payments and developed the idea of a land value tax, where people would pay the amount their land is worth to rent every month, eliminating speculation and allowing everyone to benefit from wealth that no one person created. Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers took the idea of an old-age pension and developed Social Security. And countless labor leaders and left-wingers have taken the idea of stolen labor and developed methods to increase the amount of their own labor that workers get to keep, from strong unions and labor laws all the way to worker ownership.

At the end of the day, these are the kinds of solutions that are going to fix America. We could try to implement a new set of policies that let us pretend that we all live our lives completely independently, but that is bound to fail. The frontier is closed for good, and we need to figure out what equality and democracy look like without it.



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